Category Archives: 5-4

United States v. Kozminski

487 U. S. 931

June 29, 1988

The Kozminski family ran a dairy farm, and they brought two mentally retarded people to work on it. The family made these two work extremely long hours seven days a week without pay, and used a variety of psychological manipulation techniques to keep them from leaving. The family was ultimately charged under two federal laws, which banned involuntary servitude, and conspiracy to practice involuntary servitude – obviously in reference to the Thirteenth Amendment. Jury instructions stated that involuntary servitude could be created exclusively through psychological coercion, as opposed to physical or legal coercion. The Kozminski family contended that this definition of involuntary servitude was far too broad.

The Court agreed in a 7-2 vote, but split 5-4 about the correct definition of involuntary servitude. O’Connor, writing for the majority, looked at various Thirteenth Amendment precedents, and concluded that only threats of legal or physical coercion could create the practice of involuntary servitude. The legislative history of various acts enacted on the basis of the Amendment also confirmed this more restrictive definition. O’Connor stressed that expanding the definition to include psychological manipulation would sweep too broadly, possibly making someone like a charismatic religious leader guilty under the statutes. She left it to the lower court to determine whether there was enough evidence in the record to convict the Kozminskis even under the narrower definition.

Brennan, joined by Marshall, agreed that the jury instructions swept too broadly, but felt O’Connor’s test was too narrow. His test was whether the means of coercion actually reduced someone to a slavelike state. Long hours, no pay, no days off, and squalid conditions added up to a slavelike condition, and that was what the Amendment and the enforcing statutes were meant to ban. Brennan noted that psychological coercion was very often far more effective than legal or physical coercion – the threat of having your house burned down is no less convincing than the threat of being beaten.

Stevens, joined by Blackmun, thought it unwise for the Court to attempt to formulate a precise definition. He trusted prosecutors, judges, and juries to intelligently apply, on a case by case basis, the broad Thirteenth Amendment terms of involuntary servitude. Based on the facts in the record, he thought the jury instructions were fine, and that a new trial was not warranted.

Here is another case where Brennan actually got the better of the more conservative Justices. While the majority was rightly concerned about limiting the legal reach of involuntary servitude, Brennan had exactly the right legal test to address those concerns. His points seem pretty well unanswerable, and I wish his opinion had been the majority one.

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Bowen v. Massachusetts

487 U. S. 879

June 29, 1988

This case involved a dispute between the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Massachusetts about the HHS disallowing a reimbursement for Massachusetts health expenditures. Massachusetts wanted the claim heard in District Court, as ostensibly allowed by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). HHS contended that the APA did not allow suits against it in District Court for “money damages,” and that, in any case, Massachusetts had an adequate remedy through suing in Claims Court under the Tucker Act.

The Court ruled 6-3 that a District Court could have jurisdiction. Stevens said that the phrase “money damages” was a legal term of art referring to monetary compensation for other harm done. By contrast, seeking merely to gain an amount of money legally due was known as asking for “monetary compensation.” Stevens said that legislative history, as well as a lower court opinion by no less of an authority than Robert Bork, proved this distinction. Thus, Massachusetts could still ask for a money judgment against HHS in District Court. Stevens also found that the Claims Court would not offer an adequate remedy. Those courts did not provide equitable relief, such as the declaratory and injunctive relief Massachusetts was also seeking. Furthermore, there was reason to believe that the Medicaid administration questions involved in the case were really beyond the scope of the Claims Court’s wheelhouse.

White concurred in judgment. He cryptically noted that he agreed with all of the majority’s ultimate conclusions, except for its statement that Massachusetts could request monetary compensation in District Court. He said that they would have to settle for mere declaratory and injunctive relief. Scalia, joined by Rehnquist and Kennedy, dissented vigorously. He thought the majority’s distinction between “money damages” and “monetary relief” was total crap, and utterly unsupported by legal history. Almost any suit, he argued, to obtain money is a suit for “money damages.” Thus, the APA barred District Court jurisdiction. He also claimed that the majority’s reasons for holding that the Claims Court could not provide an adequate remedy were completely specious. The Claims Court was more than capable of taking the case and providing an adequate solution for Massachusetts.

Scalia made particular note that both of the case’s major holdings would effectively deprive the Claims Court of most of its docket, and cause a ream of other policy problems. He even predicted that lower courts would probably confine the ruling to its immediate facts, because trying to apply it would cause total chaos in the Claims Court. He closed with these words which I could not more heartily agree with: “Nothing is more wasteful than litigation about where to litigate, particularly when the options are all courts within the same legal system that will apply the same law. Today’s decision is a potential cornucopia of waste.”

Bowen v. Kendrick

487 U. S. 589

June 29, 1988

In the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), Congress allowed grants to be given to organizations for the education of children. The children would be encouraged toward premarital chastity and adoption instead of premarital sex and abortion. Grant applicants were required to state how they could involve religious organizations (among other community organizations) in the program). Some religious affiliated groups received grants, and some allegedly used the grant money to teach religious doctrines about sex and pregnancy to children. The AFLA was thus attacked both facially and as-applied.

The Supreme Court upheld the act 5-4. Rehnquist considered the facial challenge first, under the Lemon test. It had an obvious secular objective, and it did not illicitly advance religion. Though the statute referred to religious organizations, they were merely among many community players to be brought in for the education of children. Even though funds sometimes went directly to religious organizations, this had been allowed in other cases, such as aid to Catholic hospitals, or aid to nominally religious colleges. Looking at the record, Rehnquist did not think most grant recipients could be described as ‘pervasively sectarian’ in the way that parochial elementary schools were. Although the law did not specifically prohibit teaching religious doctrines, Rehnquist trusted grant recipients to abide by the Constitutional separation of church and state, and noted that recipients had to check in with the government from time to time.

Rehnquist summarily added that these check ins would not result in excessive entanglement – the final, much maligned Lemon prong. Finally, he turned to the as-applied challenge, and said that a remand would be necessary to determine which grant recipients had actively taught religious doctrines. O’Connor, in concurrence, denied that the Court was retreating from a strong commitment to the Establishment clause. Kennedy, joined by Scalia, noted that even ‘pervasively sectarian’ organizations should be able to receive grant money so long as they refrained from using it to teach religious doctrines.

Blackmun, joined by Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens, wanted to strike the law down altogether. He felt that discrete violations on the record should be considered in a facial challenge, and that any law which so easily allowed for the smuggling in of religious teaching should be struck down. He argued that the majority found, without proper analysis, that most recipients were not ‘pervasively sectarian,’ and that the record suggested the opposite. He noted that the Court had usually required much stronger safeguards against money flowing to any religious teaching, and that the statute’s lack of a ban on religious teaching was inexcusable. He contended that the education of young children was much different than a hospital healing the sick, or even a college teaching less impressionable minds. Finally, he showed that policing grant recipients to ensure that no religious doctrines were imparted would certainly involve excessive entanglement.

Here is another case where the dissent was definitely right on what the various precedents had established, but I would still vote with the majority because those precedents are wrong and stupid. I wish the majority had the courage to overrule the entire Everson-Lemon line, but they didn’t. Instead, we got yet another confusing and contradictory twist in the miserable world of Establishment clause jurisprudence – albeit one that at least had the correct final result.

Ever since Everson, the Court’s liberals have displayed a fierce, sickening, and (I dare say it) religious sort of mania in Establishment clause cases. Here, for example, Blackmun speaks of the Court’s duty to show “unwavering vigilance” in any cases potentially involving government money going to religious activity (just try to imagine a liberal Justice talking about “unwavering vigilance” with respect to, say, the Interstate Commerce clause). He exhorts the reversed District Court judge to “not grow weary” on remand, after all his noble “labors thus far.” Liberals don’t use this really creepy tone for any clause other than the Establishment clause. They despise the God of Israel with a passion, and despise the very thought that even a single cent of tax money might accrue, however remotely or indirectly, to His honor.

The AFLA is one of those very rare pieces of government legislation that truly fights evil. There is not a single social phenomenon more destructive to contemporary civilization than premarital sex. When it comes to generating more abortions, more divorces, more poverty, more sexual assaults, more broken hearts, and more souls turned away from God, nothing else even comes close. For decades, our culture has been poisoned unto death by the lie that sex before marriage is no big deal. The AFLA was one of the few initiatives which actually fought back against the lie.

Boyle v. United Technologies Corp.

487 U. S. 500

June 27, 1988

A helicopter manufactured by a military contractor crashed, and the pilot died due to design flaws. The pilot’s family wanted to bring a tort action against the manufacturer under Virginia law. The manufacturer contended that the Virginia law was preempted, and that it had immunity from any tort suit because of its status as a government contractor. This government contractor defense had never been explicitly established by the Supreme Court before, and it was now their job to figure out if it existed or not.

The Court ruled 5-4 that the manufacturer was protected by government contractor immunity. Scalia began by explaining that in a few legal areas of “uniquely federal interests” the courts had the ability to fashion federal common law that could preempt state law. Scalia said that the efficient operation of federal contracts was of sufficient importance to render it subject to the courts common lawmaking power. State laws could be preempted if their was a significant conflict between them and the government’s ability to cheaply contract.

A precise formulation of the immunity and range of preemption was needed. The Federal Tort Claims Act exempted from liability all discretionary functions of government employees. Therefore, Scalia reasoned that government contractors were immune from state laws if they manufactured products that reflected the specifications given to them by the government. The pilots family said that the lower court had not used this precise formulation, but Scalia responded that a jury would probably not rule differently if the lower court had.

Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, was outraged. The majority violated Erie by fashioning common law that was not necessary at all. The burdens suffered by the government when its contractors got sued were minimal, and the losses to those victimized by defective product designs was great. Brennan said that precedents never intimated that contractors ought to have immunity, and instead suggested that they were perfectly liable to state law claims. He argued that the FTCA had no real relevance to the issue at hand. Simply put, the majority was creating immunity without any green light from Congress, and without any compelling policy reasons to do so. Stevens, in a short dissent of his own, also argued that any contractor immunity should be imposed by Congress and not the courts.

I know I must sound like a broken record by now, but I’ll say it yet again: I hate extensive tort liability, but I hate governmental immunity even more. This decision is very frustrating. All term long, there were less than ten occasions when the solid bloc of 5 conservatives beat the solid bloc of 4 liberals. Why did this stupid ruling have to be one of the rare wins, instead of Mills or Liljeberg?

Frisby v. Schultz

487 U. S. 474

June 27, 1988

A large group of pro-life activists peacefully picketed the home of an abortion doctor for several days, until the town passed an ordinance to ban residential picketing. The ordinance was passed with the expressed intent of protecting people in their homes from unwanted psychological harassment. The pro-life activist sued to have this ban struck down by the First Amendment. They argued in a facial challenge that it was overbroad, not narrowly tailored, and not written in service of a compelling interest.

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the ordinance could survive a facial challenge. O’Connor once again slapped down an especially asinine justiciability argument, and moved to the merits. Because it targeted speech on the public fora of roads and sidewalks, the ordinance would have to meet strict scrutiny. Lower courts said the ban was content neutral, and O’Connor interpreted the statute to ban only picketing in front of a single residence, and not mobile picketing throughout an entire residential area. So interpreted, the ban was not overbroad, and O’Connor found that protecting people in their home from unwanted messages was a compelling interest. And because the Court construed the ban to only apply to picketing at a single house, O’Connor felt the ordinance was narrowly tailored to meet the harm it purported to address.

White, concurring in judgment, did not like how the majority unilaterally interpreted the ordinance to not apply to mobile picketing throughout a larger residential vicinity. He thought the ordinance might have a broader reach, but ultimately felt that it was still barely within the limits of constitutionality. Stevens, dissenting, felt the ordinance was overbroad becaue it could, literally read, forbid a kid from holding a sign that said “GET WELL CHARLIE – OUR TEAM NEEDS YOU.” Brennan, joined by Marshall, did not think the ordinance was narrowly tailored. If the state wished to protect people in homes from being harassed, it could allow some picketing, but limit the crowd size, time duration, and noise level. That would serve the compelling interest while suppressing the least amount of speech.

This is, without a doubt, the worst abortion ruling ever made by a conservative majority. O’Connor’s opinion has some shocking language that I can hardly believe Scalia joined. She charged the pro-life activists with behaving in “an especially offensive way.” She was horrified by the “devastating effect” the picketing had on “the quiet enjoyment of the home.” Furthermore, she contended that “the offensive and disturbing nature” of the behavior “could scarcely be questioned.”

Evil loves darkness and hates light because it loves to stay hidden, and hates exposure. The brave pro-life activists were piercing the darkness and exposing evil when they picketed the doctor’s house. The town had a right to know of the serial murderer in its midst, and of his quiet life free from any legal trouble. An intense spotlight was shone on the banality of evil. The town council, loving darkness, and hating the light, twisted justice, and passed an ordinance to silence the latter day prophets. The lonely voices crying in the wilderness were made lonelier still.

Let’s be clear – if you’re a doctor who murders babies, you have no right to complain of emotional trauma and harassment when a light is shone on your demonic barbarity. When you have so much blood on your hands, you have forfeited the right to comfort and peace in your home. God detests nations that spill innocent blood.

Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools

487 U. S. 450

June 24, 1988

In North Dakota, rural school districts were urged to “reorganize” or consolidate. A law passed by the legislature allowed non-reorganized school districts to charge a fee for school bus transportation. The Kadrmas family, who lived near poverty level, objected to paying the bus fee in their non-reorganized school district. They argued that it violated the Equal Protection clause because reorganized school districts did not require a fee, and that it violated a more general right to education.

The Supreme Court disagreed in a 5-4 vote. O’Connor began by brushing aside a truly asinine and meritless standing challenge. Turning to the merits, she said that there was no Constitutional right to public schooling, and that laws which cast a greater burden on the poor were not inherently unconstitutional. The law served a rational purpose of helping public schools cover transportation costs, and that was enough. Although the Court had previously ruled that certain judicial proceedings be provided free of charge, O’Connor distinguished those by saying that no other remedy existed. In contrast, there were other means of getting to school apart from buses, and indeed, Sarita Kadrmas had never missed a day of school. The Equal Protection challenge was turned back because the state had a valid reason for distinguishing between reorganized and non-reorganized districts – namely, encouraging the non-reorganized ones to reorganize.

Stevens, joined by Blackmun, asserted that encouraging reorganization was not a good enough reason to allow for the charging of bus fees. He would find an Equal Protection violation. Marshall, joined by Brennan, huffed about how insensitive the Court was being to poor people. Because of the paramount social importance of education, Marshall felt that law which imposed heavy burdens on poor pupils needed to be struck down. He also felt that the majority was not following the principles of the 1982 Plyler v. Doe ruling, which required states to accept illegal immigrants into the school system.

Schweiker v. Chilicky

487 U. S. 412

June 24, 1988

For a few years in the early 1980s, the Social Security administration was denying meritorious disability claims left and right. Congress finally stepped in to correct this by passing two different laws in consecutive years. Chilicky and others who temporarily lost their benefits during this era were not satisfied with the remedies provided by Congress. They sought a Bivens remedy – a judicially created cause of action that allowed for citizens to get monetary judgments against government agents who violated Constitutional rights. The question was whether a Bivens remedy should be created to address the alleged Due Process violations of the Social Security administration.

The Court ruled 6-3 that such a remedy would be inappropriate. O’Connor stressed that the Court should treat cautiously when creating new Bivens rights. They should not be created when Congress is capable of addressing the harm, and has decided against allowing redress. O’Connor said that Congress had considered the problem of erroneously denied disability claims several times in the 1980s, and never once hinted that claims against government agents themselves were the solution. Furthermore, allowing claims to proceed would bog down a Social Security administration that was already deeply bogged down in its duties. In a footnote, O’Connor dismissed as moot the question of whether one statute explicitly barred the creation of a Bivens remedy for Social Security violations.

In a concurring opinion, Stevens said that the statue referred to in the footnote did not explicitly bar a Bivens remedy. Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, was aghast at the majority’s contention that mere backpay of erroneously denied benefits was sufficient compensation for the harms suffered by Chilicky. They deserved extra remedies for the horrendous pain and suffering they endured before getting their disability payments back. Brennan could find no policy reasons for not creating a Bivens remedy. Congress had not, by its silence, communicated an intent to bar a Bivens remedy. Nor was Social Security a domain in which the expertise of Congress ought to be deferred to. He was also unsympathetic to the argument that Bivens suits would bog down the agency.

In the other Bivens case I’ve reviewed so far, I felt the majority was wrong to not allow for the claim. This one, I’m not so sure about. You do feel sorry for what Chilicky endured, but I’m not certain Bivens should be extended to cases where the right violated is partially government created. There is no unadorned Constitutional right to disability payments – it’s very much also a statutory one. I think that’s the place I’d draw the line.

Sheridan v. United States

487 U. S. 392

June 24, 1988

Some soldiers failed to keep control of another soldier who was drunk and had a gun. He drunkenly shot some people in a car. The injured people in the car sued. The Federal Tort Claim Act (FTCA) barred torts against government agents where the claim arose out of assault and battery. The government claimed that the drunken soldier’s assault and battery was the fount of the claim, so it had to fail, even if the other soldiers had acted negligently. The injured people claimed that the assailant was not acting within the scope of his employment, so the only true government action did in fact arise from negligence.

The Court ruled 6-3 that the FTCA did not bar the tort claim. Stevens argued that a negligence claim against the government would not “arise” from assault and battery if the assailant had not been connected with the government at all. Because the assailant was not acting within the scope of his employment, there seemed no reason to distinguish the two cases merely due to the accident that the assailant happened to be on the government payroll. Thus, if negligence was the only alleged government action, a FTCA claim could go forward even if it incidentally involved assault and battery that was not government action.

In a concurrence, White confessed that he had once joined an opinion which suggested the opposite of what the majority ruled. Nonetheless, White gamely admitted that he had changed his mind. Kennedy, concurring in judgment, worried that the majority was on the road to obliterating the assault and battery exception from the FTCA entirely, but felt that the facts of the current case warranted allowing the claim to proceed. He also faulted the dissent for its contention that all claims involving assault in their fact patterns would have to be barred.

O’Connor, joined by Rehnquist and Scalia, dissented. She contended that when assault and battery were the direct cause of the injuries complained of, the FTCA flatly banned any claims. She charged the majority with both ignoring and twisting precedents to support its conclusion, and also argued that legislative history supported her own point of view.

I’ve stated my views on these kinds of cases a few times already, but I will do so again. I really hate torts and broad tort liability. But, even so, I hate government immunity even more. Thus, I can only cheer on the majority, and even congratulate Justice White for owning up to a change of heart.

Mississippi Power & Light Co. v. Mississippi ex rel. Moore

487 U. S. 354

June 24, 1988

This was probably the most brutal case I’ve ever confronted. Quite honesty, I couldn’t even read the whole thing because I was so lost, and I had to rely on the syllabus to get the gist. Apologies.

Basically, FERC, a federal energy agency told a Mississippi power company how much electricity it needed to buy, and at what rate. A Mississippi agency then set retail rates based on what would enable the company to recover its expenditures. But it was argued that the company had imprudently wasted money building a nuclear power plant, and that only prudent expenditures could be passed on to consumers. The question was whether FERC’s setting of  wholesale rates preempted state agencies from considering whether the expenditures of power companies were prudent, and adjusting retail rates accordingly.

The Court ruled 6-3 that there was preemption. Stevens said that the case was pretty much controlled by a precedent called Nantahala, which generally disallowed state agencies from setting retail rates that wouldn’t allow power companies to recoup the investment made in buying the set quota of energy at rates set by FERC. Stevens said that any differences between that case and the instant case were negligible. He thought that FERC was entitled to take the prudence of a power company’s projects and expenditures into account when setting wholesale rates, and that states could not attack FERC’s final judgment by re-litigating the question of prudence after the fact, and monkeying with the retail rates to relieve consumers.

Scalia concurred in judgment. To him, it was a simple Chevron case. FERC had asserted the power to review the prudence of the decisions of power companies when setting wholesale rates, and since this was not flatly inconsistent with the underlying statutes, FERC deserved the Court’s deference. Brennan, joined by Marshall and Blackmun, did not find any statutory authority for FERC to deal with questions of prudence, and contended that it was still the domain of states, at least as it related to setting retail rates. It was simply beyond agency purview, and thus not entitled to Chevron deference. Furthermore, the central question of prudence served as an adequate basis to distinguish Nantahala, which did not squarely address that precise issue.

United States v. Taylor

487 U. S. 326

June 24, 1988

The Speedy Trial act requires trial within 70 days of indictment. The day before that time limit expired, the suspect ran away. When he was finally recaptured, the government wasted two months before it brought him to trial again. The District Judge found that the 70 day limit had expired, and also found that the “lackadaisical” attitude of the government after recapturing him was responsible for the great delay. The judge dismissed the case with prejudice. The question was whether the judge had abused her discretion in so doing.

The Court ruled 6-3 that she had abused her discretion. Blackmun said that the Speedy Trial act allowed for dismissal without prejudice, and that to dismiss with prejudice, a judge had to weigh several factors. Among those were the seriousness of the charges, and the degree to which the defendant was responsible for the delay. The judge barely addressed these factors, and concentrated only on the “lackadaisical” actions of the government, which she didn’t even explain all that well. Blackmun resorted to legislative history to show that the various different factors really did need to be considered. Scalia joined everything except the legislative history part. In his concurring opinion he sounded his old notes about the importance of sticking to clear statutory text.

White concurred to say that a delay initially caused by the suspect absconding should almost always be dismissed without prejudice. Stevens, joined by Brennan and Marshall, dissented. Dismissing with prejudice was a judgment call where reasonable judges could differ, and Stevens found no grounds to conclude that the judge had abused her discretion. He noted that the judge gave the runaway a harsh 5 year sentence for absconding, which was intended to compensate for the lost opportunity to prosecute the underlying charge. Allowing the case to be brought again risked essentially punishing him twice for the same drug charge. Stevens also said that the government’s delays were far more egregious than the “lackadaisical” label would leave you to believe.

I might be with Stevens on this one. The judge should not have dismissed with prejudice, but it probably wasn’t an abuse of discretion.